Official Oppression

Do APD officers have a pattern of dismissing sexual assaults?

Art Acevedo
Art Acevedo (Photo by John Anderson)

In February of 2014, Austin Police Depart­ment Chief Art Acevedo evoked a wave of public scorn following Amanda Jo Stephen's Guadalupe Street arrest for jaywalking and disobeying an officer. "In other cities, cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty," he said during a press conference, "so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas." The comments (directed more at reporters than the public) went viral – even the BBC re-reported them – and Acevedo eventually apologized. The comparison, he said, was "a poor analogy," and came at the end of an emotional week (following the capital murder conviction of Brandon Daniel in the 2012 killing of Officer Jaime Padron).

But a year's worth of embarrassing incidents indicates that the department might have a sensitivity problem. That issue was highlighted Oct. 30, when KXAN-TV broke the story of two APD officers – Mark Lytle and Michael Castillo – recorded while making a sophomoric rape joke in their squad car; and then incoming Austin Police Association President Kenneth Casaday defended the officers as just "clowning around." Both officers were suspended; Castillo for three days, and Lytle, who actually cracked the joke, for five. In his disciplinary memos, Acevedo said he took into consideration the fact that both officers' "participation in an unprofessional and inappropriate conversation was not reflective of [their] total work performance or work product." But it's also possible that Lytle's remark reflected somewhat more about his attitudes than the chief's action acknowledged.

Following the incident, Chronicle contributor Anna Toon emailed the News desk with a cell phone screenshot of Lytle's name. She'd noted it after he and three other officers had come to her house in Aug. 2013 in response to her domestic abuse call. Toon remembers Lytle as being notably unsympathetic to her situation: a persistent victim of domestic violence, nearly panicked outside her home, she was shocked to hear Lytle say, among other disturbing remarks, "It takes two to make a marriage work."

Toon notified the Office of the Police Monitor of the incident after Lytle's name was in the news, and she reported the episode to APD. Asked whether her report had any effect on Lytle's suspension, a public information officer told the Chronicle that it was considered, but because Toon had never lodged a formal complaint, it didn't carry much weight.

A month following the news of the rape joke, Vagina zine Editor Hillary-Anne Crosby took to Twitter with a tale of another APD officer's dismissal, as a prank, of what appeared to be fairly serious sexual harassment. Crosby had returned from visiting her family over Thanksgiving when she found an envelope attached to the door of her East Austin apartment. Inside the envelope were two sheets of paper: an invoice for sexual acts, she says, "like how much a blow job would cost and how much anal [sex] would cost," and a full-color sheet with photos of penises.

Crosby asked around her complex and learned that other women (and only women) had received similar envelopes, and she told the responding officer (whose name she can't remember) that a few months before, a resident of the complex had pulled his car beside her and her roommate, saying "I want to fuck the both of you together." The officer dismissed what happened, Crosby said, as an "isolated incident."

"It's so disheartening to have law enforcement officers tell you it's just a prank you need to get over, when it's clearly enough [of a concern] for you to call them in the first place," she said. Concerning the drive-by incident, she says, "I think it's reasonable [for APD] to go and talk to the person. If you know where that person is and who it is, you can at least step in and say something. If you're playing music too loud an officer will tell you if your music is too loud. Maybe he won't write you a ticket, but he will say something."

Does APD take such matters seriously? A few weeks after Crosby's report, Officer Andrew Pietrowski commented to KUT reporter Joy Diaz, concerning NFL running back Ray Rice's domestic violence case, that women don't deserve equal rights, and that Rice's wife deserved her beating: "You act like a ho, you get treated like one." Pietrowski, already scheduled to retire, stepped down immediately after Diaz took her recording of the remark to Acevedo, whose response was blunt: "Somebody [who] has that mentality has no business being a cop."

How common Pietrowski's attitude might be among veteran APD officers remains uncertain. Just two weeks after his remarks, APD Detective Brenda Bermudez filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging she'd been sexually harassed by many of her male colleagues, and that, in addition to other incidents claimed in her pleadings, some of those same colleagues had described her efforts to clothe naked female victims as "cock-blocking."

If her charges are confirmed in court, it would appear APD and its male officers still have much to learn about how to treat female colleagues, not to mention female victims of crime.

A copy of Det. Bermudez's petition against the city of Austin is posted here.

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Austin Police Department, Austin Police Department Chief, Art Acevedo, Amanda Jo Stephen, Mark Lytle, Michael Castillo, Austin Police Association, Kenneth Casaday, Anna Toon, Office of the Police Monitor, Hillary-Anne Crosby, Andrew Pietrowski, Joy Diaz, Brenda Bermudez, rape culture

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